Imagine for a moment, put yourself in the place of Mary Magdalene. Along with the other disciples, she’d been following Jesus, telling others of his deeds, tracing his steps, perhaps going about to tell her friends and neighbors of his time spent with her. While telling others about him, coming to know him more, drawing closer to him, seeing his works of healing, coming to see firsthand how the Scriptures she’d grown up with as a Jewish woman, were being knitted together, and fulfilled in this Jesus that she had come to know. Hearing of his promise and his testimony to be the Son of God, the Son of Man, the promised one, the Messiah. Can you imagine this? Can you imagine what it would be like to be with Jesus as he was fulfilling the testimony of the only faith, the only way of life you knew? Can you imagine what it would be like to love someone with all your heart and mind and soul and body? I bet you can.
And then like a thief in the night, to have that love filled with the hope of life, or fulfillment, of reconciliation to God, ripped out of your heart and soul and mind in the blink of an eye. Ripped away from you not as a slow passing, not with a readily apparent good life lived, leaving behind a big family, or wealth, or anything really. But ripped away from you as a relatively young man, the mission for which he was pressing so hard, seemingly, over, emptied of all effect, nailed to a cross like a common criminal, hanging there with a mere thief. And what had she heard? “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “It is finished.” “Into your hands O Father, do I commend my spirit.”
What must she have been thinking? I can hear a psalm of lament pour from her mouth now: “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Dry, dry bones, stripped again of flesh and spirit, of blood run dry as the desert; stripped of hope, of life (ps 31).
Have you ever been at this place in your life before? Where are you Lord? I am in distress, I have lost you and my eyes waste from grief, from your relief, from your water in the desert of my life, my soul and my body have been emptied. I am lost, he is gone, she is gone. I have lost my love. I have lost the one knitted to my soul. I have lost my husband, my wife, my son, my daughter, my mother, my father … Why O Lord, hast thou forsaken me? Haven’t we all been here before?
Maybe some of us are here now in the midst of a pandemic that has swept the earth, killed indiscriminately – all ages, races, Christian and non, conservative and liberal – death has no partiality we have had confirmed for us. Maybe our struggle isn’t life and death. Maybe it is simply isolation, loneliness, uncertainty where we wonder what’s next with fear: will I have a job, how will my finances be after this, can I get food and medication as I need it. In the midst of this – even simply the inability to gather together as a community – we might struggle with a sense of profound loss and disappointment. Where is God? Is He there? In whom have I believed all these years?
Remember the disciples Simon Peter and the other man. They ran to the tomb, went in and saw that it was empty. The Gospel tells us that they both believed, but what exactly did they believe? We’re not sure because all it says is that they returned home; presumably they figured that was it. Jesus had come to share some time with them and then what? We’re not really sure. What does it mean that they simply returned home? Was the mission over? Was something more to come? What were they making of their experience? Was it just a personal revelation to them or for them? Did they doubt? Were they confused? Were they in shock? We simply don’t know. And I daresay that many of us would respond just as they did: we would figuratively go home, walk out of the church, away from our mission, and go home. We’d maybe talk about ‘those years when’ which would prompt us to some momentary celebration that would eventually fade with time and die out before it reached a next generation. This would make sense because as the Scriptures tell us: they did not yet understand that he must rise from the dead. What good is a dead man returned to the dust? What hope of life with God, what promises of God does this fulfill for humanity?
But Mary, Mary doesn’t do this. She prays aloud the very words Jesus himself has just lived. “O Lord why have you forsaken me and all your followers, Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Where are you Lord, where are you O my Lord. And she remains at his grave. You see Mary’s hope was grounded in something deeper even than her love for Jesus.
Mary’s hope was grounded in the words of God heard in the Scriptures: I will come to you Ephraim, I will be with you Israel, I will be your God and you will be my people. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. And her hope was grounded also in God’s words to Abraham through the prophets: I will gather all things to myself, not just Israel but Jew and Gentile alike. I will gather all things and place them under my authority and I will be all in all (c.f. 1 Cor 15:28).
Mary’s hope, grounded in her love for Jesus caused her to bend low. She weeps at the magnitude of what she believed she’d lost: her Lord God. Life shattering moment of grief. She looks in at the tomb for a last glance. And sitting there are two angels. Remember back to our first Sunday in Lent, Satan’s words to Jesus, “jump from this tower Jesus, fall down, go down to your death, do this, the angels will raise you up, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.” Remember Jesus’s reply, ‘it is said, do not put your Lord your God to the test. Not my will, not anyone else’s will, but yours be done, Jesus says to his Father.’
And while Mary first sees the angels, she then sees a man she does not recognize, she thinks maybe it’s the gardener and so and she says to him, “please, if you have taken him, let me have him and I will take him with me.” But the man says to her, “Mary, it is me, Jesus!” It is not the angels who have borne Jesus up; they merely testify to his rising from the dead. No, it is not, as Satan would have it, as our world would have it, that anyone raised Jesus, or moved his body from the tomb. It is Jesus himself who has risen, raised up by and as God himself.
Astonished, exhilarated perhaps, she shouts, “rabbouni” (teacher). It is you my Lord. She had apparently at least attempted to embrace him for he says to her, “Mary, do not yet hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Don’t hold onto me yet. It is not your time to go where I am going. I have work for you Mary, “go and tell my brothers that I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.” Now you are in me as I am in my Father, and you will be called my brothers and sisters.
Overwhelmed with joy Mary rushes off to tell the disciples, to testify to what she has seen. And as we know, she is one of the first to make this proclamation. This Jesus was not a great man by the world’s standards. Yet the life that he lived, he lived in perfect love for his Father. A love that led to the cross he bore for our sakes even to the end of his life, the cross that would bear the iniquity, the sin of us all; a love that would overcome the darkness, the death that is life without God; a love that would draw us up from the dead to be reconciled to God (c.f. Isaiah 53). This was the life of God that Mary recognized in Jesus’s coming to her, coming amongst the disciples, coming into the world to transform a fallen and broken creation.
Of course like Simon Peter, and the other disciple, and like Mary, so often we struggle to recognize Jesus’s presence in a world that so often appears to us violent, broken, painful, tiring, confusing, sometimes even full of emptiness; and now a world – an entire world of individuals all brought to our figurative knees by a virus. And we too wait with confusion, worry, exhaustion, emotional turmoil. Maybe some who look at the news, or who must bury a friend, or child, or grandparent, or parent, they weep. In the most profound sense, we weep not only literally, but as persons with hearts and minds that grow sad with Mary and Jesus when we look out with fear on a world so filled with uncertainty and often pain and suffering, we look out sometimes not just with a sense of sadness, but sometimes hopelessness, and helplessness. We cry out with Jesus, “O God why have you forsaken us, where are you.” Or perhaps it is in those moments where someone or something dear to us is lost: a child, a husband, a wife, a friend; or when things we’d hoped for fail to take place, marriage, health, a child’s flourishing, a grandchild’s well being; or when things fall apart, relationships, home life, our bodies, our minds. We don’t just weep, we cry out, in agony, in gut wrenching pain, ‘why O God have you forsaken me?’
These moments, Mary moments I sometimes call them, are inevitable. We are finite, mortal beings. This virus before us is nothing new to our history; countless generations across history have experienced this, and worse than this. It is a reminder that our earthly lives do not persist forever. But they are indeed a gift for a reason: so that like Mary, and like the disciples, we might have a life in which we can come to see the risen Christ in the midst of our own lives, over and over. We are given life in order that we might see God at work not just when things are going well, but so often in the midst of our greatest trials, in those moments where we are most vulnerable, most laid bare, most open to receiving the one who brings true life: Jesus Christ himself. So do not worry, little flock, God says to us, for I am with you. I will bear you up and bring you to me in the darkest moments, in the last moments. This is the promise Mary knows and goes to share, and it is ours if we are but willing to follow: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not, in him, also give us everything else? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.
When you click here, you will find our Gospel Reading for Good Friday captured in narrative form. Typically, we read this long Passion Narrative in parts for our service. Since we cannot do that this year, I thought the pictures that accompany this telling of the Passion will help you to enter into the story of Jesus’s betrayal, his arrest, his trial, his torture and his execution. In order to understand the profound gift that Jesus’s resurrection opens for us both now and for eternity that we’ll celebrate at Easter, we first need to journey with him today, Good Friday. We still recognize Good Friday rather than skipping it and going straight to Easter because we are a people who need to physically embody our faith. So here, as a people who truly are in a state of shock because of COVID, we are brought face-to-face with the stark judgment of the Cross: our finitude, our suffering, our uncertainty. With Peter and Judas we are confronted with the question of whose we are, shall we persevere through the Cross to find hope in the resurrection, or shall we stop and cut ourselves off from the living fountain of life, given in the resurrection? Shall we turn away from God in the things we say and allowing our secular world to pretend power and authority in dictating justice, righteousness, and goodness? Or shall we endure through the cockcrows in our own personal lives? This Good Friday, we are in the position – one unique to most of our lives – to ask deep questions about how we are responding to God. As you read through these passages and look at the accompanying pictures, please don’t rush. Take a moment, consider how you fit into the character of Paul, of Judas, of Pilate, of Jesus’s betrayers, of Jesus’s family, of his disciples? Maybe this stark removal from the normal rhythms of life has brought you to realize that you engage other people with fear of something, rather than in faith that you are loved, held, desired, and given purpose by someone far more powerful than today’s Pilate. Maybe it makes you realize that you run from things because you have been hurt by those who taunt, who betray, who misjudge or mischaracterize you. Is that running really serving you? Or has it left you in the place of Jesus’s people here and Pilate: unable to see truth, to be held in that truth in love, to forgive yourself, or others, and to move on with hope? There are so many ways we fit into all the figures we encounter in this Gospel reading. Take the time to enter into them. And once you’ve done that, take the time to pray to God to give you the capacity to endure the shock of a world turned upside down by COVID, by Good Friday, and the potential it opens to be transformed, pulled up from the grave where sin leaves you, into the Easter Hope we shall celebrate Sunday. AMEN.
Sermon: Palm Sunday 2020.
Our readings are Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11. They can be found online here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=29
One of the things I love about Palm Sunday is the way that it threads together the Old and New Testaments. The readings – the same stories each year – always show us that we are being ‘grafted’ (as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans) into the people of God through the one true tree of life: Jesus Christ. Why do I love that Palm Sunday does this? Well, I love the symbolic connections:
So this is why I love palm Sunday. It is filled with symbols, words, creatures, persons and events that weave together the Old and New testaments not just in these two passages, but across the Scriptures.
But this is an intellectual delight, an intellectual beauty that speaks to something more fundamental. And if it were not for this, that interweaving would be like that you find in any other well written story. No, the key here, at least for me is this. The reason it is so important that these passages have such interwoven fulfillment is because it proves to me that the God who claims to have made me, given me a purpose, a place, and a life – that he cannot and will not abandon me when things go horrifically wrong. We could have just read the Gospel lesson today and know that this man named Jesus is going to take a humble donkey ride while some folks lay down palm branches.
Nice story. Reminds me of many other legends and myths. And maybe this would give me some moments of refreshment or allow me to reset how I think about things. But I’ll tell you what, it would leave me with a sense of profound sadness about life. Why? Because it wouldn’t allow me to see who God is: that the one who made me from nothing – that rescued me from this profoundly messed up world where there is disease, suffering, brokenness, war, brutal violence, pandemics – is also the one who refuses to accept these things as dictating that I should succumb to brokenness, corruption, and evil in my life now. Although I may suffer and struggle – as all of us do and very much are to varying degrees through this pandemic – God has always been, always will be and so in the middle of this frightening, confusing, destructive, and uncertain time of pandemic, always is with us.
You see our story today, of Jesus taking the wise donkey of burden, carrying the God-man who has taken on my own and your burdens, allows me to see the world through a different light as the psalm puts it, or lens, as we might say today. If we look back through time in Scripture what we see is not just the events recorded in those scriptures. Instead we can see all of history and even our present right there in different parts of Scripture: we see wars, disease, corruption, violence, degradation and humiliation, aging, suffering, sickness, disease and death. And we see God present with us, his people. We see him not idly standing by, or standing above us shaking his head at us and our foolishness and our suffering. We see that he came into the world for us and walked a path that would lead to our redemption, our reconciliation and to life. A life offered to each of us not to live on our own, or in our own ways, but in relationship, following that path that God laid out for us in the life of Jesus. And we know that the gate came down with Jesus’s Cross and resurrection, so that we could walk the righteous path with him, we in him and him in us.
That my friends, is what allows me to truly live and give of myself when I am tired, scared, worried, stressed out, frustrated, confused, and profoundly uncertain. I am not alone even when no mere human knows my fear and anxiety, knows the deeds I must do and the things I must refrain from telling, or the ways in which relationships can scratch away the scabs or even old skin of scars from old fears abided, but never forgotten.
Today we begin holy week. In times past it has been a week of anticipation and of so much activity in the Church, times of gathering, preparing and worshipping. This week there will be no opportunity to gather together in person. This week is Holy Saturday. It is a time of collective exhaustion, of profound shock, sadness, worry, and maybe even for some of you (as I know it has been for many of my colleagues), of tears. My friends I say to you, let them flow. There is no shame in weeping, of wailing with lament and anguish. This is a world whose entire population is living a truth of human finitude: our Holy Saturday. It is okay to acknowledge this and allow yourself to remain there.
For we know something else. We know that The Son of God who goes down into the depths of Hell, that he rises. That he comes amongst us and that he remains with us, that he gives us His Spirit so that in these times, we can know that we are not alone. We are not standing outside the gates but we have the Holy of Holies inside us, deeper inside us that we are in ourselves (see Augustine). So as we are confined to our homes, uncertain of our futures, let us not forget that we are bound together, as were the Israelites, in and with Christ. From here, just where we are, we can reach out as we’ve been doing – in the hope and by the way of Christ – to talk on the phone, to write a letter or an email, to check in with one another, knowing that we have been given life, even through struggle and uncertainty, for the sake of one another as witnesses to this one in whom we find life. AMEN.